|In Spain's Pyrenees: Wilderness and Witchery|
Photos: Kip Miller
a moonlit evening in Bielsa. Snow glimmers atop the Mount Perdido Massif
as our group gathers on the balcony of our parador. An icy stream rushes
in the valley below us. Beech trees rustle in the chill night air. Jesús,
our resourceful tour director, is about to reenact the Queimada,
an ancient rite originating in Galicia but also popular throughout northern
Spain. Here in the remote Pyrenees, pagan practices endured long after the
country was united under the Christian monarchs. The Queimada ritual dates
from the mists of time. Its adherents believe that it can drive out evil
spirits that prey on unsuspecting souls. Witches remain a big part
of our heritage here in the north, Jesús explains, especially
in the mountains of Navarre and Aragon, where to this day the summer solstice
is celebrated in the caves of Zugarramurdi, once the hideout of witches.
All you have to do is take a look at the chimneys of village houses in the
Pyrenees. Each one resembles a pointed witchs hat.
The Queimada ritual is popular throughout Northern Spain.
As sugar burns in the hot liquid, any witches present will be purified.
With that Jesús readies a large clay pot which is meant to represent the earth, placing it over a burner. He adds lemon peel, a fistful of coffee beans, a dash of cinnamon and half a cup of sugar. Next comes the key ingredient: an entire bottle or two of Galician Aguardiénte de Orújo, a transparent 50% alcohol brandy made from grape residue. The fiery liquid denotes the tears of Mother Nature. The flame is ignited and Jesús stirs the mixture. In a few minutes the alcohol begins to burn. He scoops up liquid from the bottom of the pot, lifting it high in the air, then pours it back into the pot, creating a cascade of blue fire. As the liquid blazes and the sugar in the pot caramelizes, a special incantation is invoked, beginning with: Owls, toads and witches .demons, goblins and devils .spirts of the misty vales . The chant conjures up Satan and Beelzebubs Inferno and the roar of the enraged sea. As the flame soars, any witches present will be purified. When the liquid goes down your throat, you will be freed of the evil in your soul, Jess assures us. By now the night air is turning much colder. I zip up my Parka. The hot liquid feels good, but overpowered by the taste of coffee and cinnamon. I head back to my room and crawl under the covers, ruminating about the occult and the unlucky Maria Bielsa, who had the surname of our parador. In 1499 she was one of the first to be burned at the stake during the Inquisition. She had been accused of witchcraft!
Snow clings to a Pyrenean peak framing rolling green foothills.
Huesca Pyrenees, we pass by Bielsa, a town that was destroyed during the
Spanish Civil War, but completely rebuilt in local style. It is famous
throughout Spain for a colorful carnival that has been staged there since
antiquity, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The festival
marks the farewell of winter and the arrival of spring, Jesús
explains. Men called trángas dress in goat skins, blacken
their faces, and put potato teeth into their mouths. They also wear rams
horns on their heads and goat bells tied around their waists. Intrigued,
I ask Jesús if I can find a video of the carnival on the Internet.
For sure, you can, but let me tell more now, he insists. The
trángas carry long poles and perform a fertility dance that is
supposed to awaken the earth after the long winter. The crowds cheer and
whistle as they strut through the town, particularly when they beat up
on a couple of bear-skinned characters carrying large sacks of herbs.
All of Bielsas unmarried young girls wear colorful regional costumes
and flirt with the trángas. Its very wild and noisy!
His words are evocative. I can almost hear trumpets blaring, goat bells
clanging and children screaming as they trail the characters through the
streets! The carnival celebration on the island of Skyros in Greece
is almost identical, I tell my husband, quite astounded. How
is it that two places so far apart came up with a very similar tradition?
The Parador of Bielsa provides luxurious accommodations at the doorstep of Ordesa National Park.
is quite elegant, with public rooms featuring exposed beams, fireplaces
and burnished wood floors. One of the finest hotels in the Pyrenees, it
is popular with both mountain trekkers and more sedentary visitors who
appreciate a touch of luxury in such a remote setting. We change for dinner
and our entire group is seated together at two tables in the formal dining
room. Here the kitchen is famed throughout Aragon for regional specialties
featuring game and local fish. And tonights menu is no exception:
an appetizer of bread cream with quail egg, and a choice of local trout
with sausage and onion conift or roast lamb a la plancha. The cooking
typifies the attention to detail and authenticity that Spains paradores
are known for. How about if we step outside for a little fresh air
and a peek at Mount Perdido in the dark, suggests my husband.
Map of Ordesa National Park and Anisclo Canyon, a mighty chasm filled
with cascading waterfalls and lesser rivers that spill into the Cinca.
Early in the morning we start out toward Bielsa, where our group will be divided and loaded onto two mini buses heading southwest through Escalona to Anisclo Canyon. Once unreachable by vehicles, it is accessed by a narrow, one-way loop road that was originally blasted out of the canyon wall by political prisoners during the 1960s. Anisclo is one of the wildest sections of the park, renowned for its cascading waterfalls, botanical riches and animal life. In the lower canyon one encounters dense forests of beech, yew and holm oak. Near its mouth, an ancient limestone grotto houses the hermitage of Saint Úrbez, the patron Saint of shepherds. Saint Úrbez was born in 702 and there are many legends about him, says Nathan, our knowledgeable park guide. Supposedly, Úrbez could to talk to animals, bring on rain and perform other feats of magic. He lived to be 100 and his body remained intact for centuries until it was burned during the Civil War, he elaborates in a very British accent. Wow! Nathans English is just phenomenal! I whisper to my husband. I was educated in Bermuda at an English school, he winks. I have been working in Spain for 20 years as a naturalist.
Park naturalist Nathan is an expert on Pyrenean flora, fauna and geologic history.
of my favorite mountain flowers are the butterworts, he notes, pointing
to a purple blossom atop rust-colored rocks. They are insectivorous
perennials. Their leaves exude a bactericide which helps to decompose
trapped insects. We humans have even used their secretions to treat wounds.
He approaches a clump of bears ear violets, with fuzzy hairs that
absorb water from the atmosphere. Above, pink rock carnations drape a
rocky overhang, not far from wild primroses and a carnivorous flycatcher.
Obviously, Nathan has a well-practiced eye that quickly identifies the
plants. We continue walking for about 20 minutes amid a glistening forest
of Scotch pine and fir that clings to the canyon walls. In some spots
the canyon is quite narrow, almost a slit, with every inch of its light-obscuring
cliffs covered in moss and greenery. Below us, the fast-moving Bellos
churns relentlessly. The park has many rare species of birds and
mammals, adds Nathan. But it is most famous for its lammergeiersthe
bone-breakers of the Pyrenees. They are Europes largest birds, with
a wingspan of over nine feet. According to local custom, farmers
leave dead animals for them. The birds pick them up with their huge talons,
flying high over rocky pinnacles, and then drop them on the rocks. The
carcasses come apart, their bones broken. The birds swoop down on the
bones, sucking up the exposed marrow.
On the road to AÍnsa, a large herd of sheep commandeers the only paved road.
Our two buses snake up the loop road to leave the park, stopping at a lookout near Fanlo with dramatic views of the surrounding mountain peaks. It is early afternoon and several shepherds are out on the asphalt with their bleating flocks, delaying our descent to Aínsa, one of Spains most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns. Once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Sobrarbe, Aínsa was incorporated into Aragon in the 11th century during the reign of King Garci Ximeno. Our bus deposits us near its historic center overlooking the Cinca and Ara Rivers. The old town includes narrow, cobbled streets and a castle under renovation. The castles largest tower was recently transformed into an eco-museum with an interesting display on Pyrenean vultures, says Jesus. He leads us to Aínsas focal point, the handsome Plaza Mayor, a large central square distinguished by stone arcades filled with shops and restaurants. Here too is the town hall, once the royal palace of the early kings of Aragon. Towering over the square is the belfry of the 11th century Church of Santa Maria.
AÍnsas historic Plaza Mayor is dominated by arcades housing communal wine presses,
cafes and the Romanesque church and belfry of Santa Maria.
shall we have for lunch? asks Eric as he surveys our choices under
the arches, transporting us back to the present. We settle on Pizzeria
La Tea, taking a table in their back room. Here everything is made to
order, Spanish time. But the long wait is worth it -- our thin-crusted
pizzas are heaped with tangy peppers, mushrooms, artichokes and olives,
every bite extra delicious after our canyon trek. We sit back for a few
minutes, polishing off our beers. What a great day, sighs
Kathy. Im really sorry we have to leave tomorrow. Wouldnt
it be wonderful to hike through the Ordesa Valley floor?
Drummers rehearse for an upcoming music festival in AÍnsa.
We stroll alongside Aínsas fortifications. Ahead of us a dozen youths are immersed in a drumming rehearsal, directed by a lead drummer who is the setting the pace. Could they be practicing for the music festival, or better still for Septembers Morisma? I ask my husband. Not far from the parking area, a small path winds through farm fields to a circular bandstand surrounded by an iron fence. Sheltered inside is a stone reproduction of the oak tree and cross that spurred the great battle of 724. Apparently, the memorial was erected in 1655, the year when the first Morisma was staged.
When the rain clears, a bright blue sky defines Mt. Perdidos glacier.
In recent years, Pyrenean glaciers have been rapidly retreating.
Heading out to Barcelona in the morning, we drive through grassy foothills dotted with impressive Romanesque churches, followed by a series of reservoirs brimming with fresh snowmelt from the Pyrenees. I am filled with regret that our time here was so short. Yet, it was a visit was full of magic, both occult and scenic. I look back at the mountains one last time. In the distance a large vulture is soaring high up in the sky searching for prey, its outstretched wings casting a long shadow on the hills below. I am hoping it is a lammergeier.